Psychological stress seems to ramp up in amplitude during the holidays, and with the economic outlook still gloomy, this year may be worse for many people. Chronic stress and anxiety are linked with excessive oxidative stress, and, if not dealt with, leads to cell death, including cells in the brain. The good news? According to an article by Gretchen Reynolds in the New York Times Magazine, researchers at Princeton and  the University of Colorado at Boulder, have discovered that neurons in the brains of exercising rats responded differently to stressors than do the brains of more slothful rats. The information was presented last month at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in Chicago. The ‘exercised rats’ brains remained calm when exposed to stress compared to the slothful rats, whose brains exhibited the classic ‘fight or flight’ response. It has been assumed by both popular imagination and the scientific community, that exercise enhances mood, due, in part, by the release of the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter serotonin. Surprisingly, however, serotonin levels were actually muted in the exercising rats. They are not exactly sure of the mechanism yet, but the bottom line is this. Moderate exercise dampens the effects of oxidative stress, and that’s a good thing. And it doesn’t happen right away. They looked at the rat’s brains at three weeks and again at six weeks. At three weeks, the rats did not show much reduction in stress-related anxiety. At six weeks, however, they did. “Something happened  between three and six weeks,” says Benjamin Greenwood, Ph.D., a research associate at U CO-Boulder. It’s not clear as of yet, how that translates into exercise prescription for humans. Also, the researchers only looked at aerobic forms of exercise. The nugget I want you to take from this is that if you’re running, walking, cycling, or swimming, keep it up. If you’re just starting out, you may not feel the muted stress response right away, but keep going. Moving, sweating, increasing blood flow is good for you (like you didn’t already know that). Enjoy the holidays.

PS: Coming soon-a report on the link between intense exercise and stroke prevention.

Stay well, John R Blilie, M.S.